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Cuts cost L.A. Unified its Teach for America instructors for next year

The district, facing a steep budget shortfall, says it won't be able to afford new teachers from the program, which places college graduates in low-income schools.

June 19, 2009|Seema Mehta

The financially strapped Los Angeles Unified School District says it cannot afford to hire any new teachers next year from Teach for America, a prestigious program that places high-achieving college graduates in low-income, underperforming schools.

The district has worked with the nonprofit since the early 1990s; more than 600 Teach for America members have taught in L.A. Unified classrooms since 2004. Now, in addition to taking no new teachers from the program next year, the district is considering laying off a third of its current 67 first-year Teach for America members.

"Over the years, Teach for America corps members have made a tremendous impact on the students and schools they serve," said Deborah Ignagni, L.A. Unified's administrator of certificated employment operations. "This impact toward improving student achievement and the social condition of their school communities is immeasurable."

But for now, the district's decision means that in Teach for America's Los Angeles region, which is among the organization's largest nationwide, most members will teach at charter schools, not traditional public schools. Charters are publicly funded schools that operate independently and are free from many state and district regulations.

"So long as we are serving students from low-income settings in public schools, we are agnostic about the governance model of those schools," said Brian Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit's Los Angeles operation. "We want to have a significant presence in traditional public schools. However, if there are no vacancies in traditional LAUSD schools this year, we want to ensure that we are still bringing top talent into classrooms in Los Angeles."

Teach for America is a highly selective program that places recent college graduates in low-income classrooms across the nation.

Some educators are critical of the program, saying its young teachers lack the training of traditional teachers and sometimes use the time to add an altruistic flourish to their resumes before they move on to more lucrative careers.

Supporters point out that teacher turnover in troubled schools is high regardless, and that after Teach for America members finish their two-year commitment, two-thirds continue to work in education. Research also has shown that the Teach for America members are as effective as teachers with conventional credentials.

For the coming school year, the program accepted 4,100 out of 35,000 applicants for placements across the nation. About 140 of these teachers will be based in the Los Angeles area, and more than 100 of them will be placed in charter schools.

The program's 14 placements in the Compton Unified School District for next year appear unchanged for now. But 13 placements in the Pasadena Unified School District are uncertain as the district struggles with state budget cuts, officials said.

"All things told, we have . . . felt very fortunate to have the caliber of teachers we were able to bring on the Muir staff from TFA," said Tim Sippel, assistant principal at Pasadena's John Muir High School, where five were placed this year. "We desperately hope we can retain them in the midst of the budget crisis we are facing as a district."

In Los Angeles, the Teach for America members who recently received pink slips are among some 2,500 employees in the district facing layoffs as the district struggles to find $132 million in additional cuts this school year, and $143 million more for the coming year. Teachers in the program are paid $39,788 annually, the same as other new teachers with alternative certifications. The district also pays the organization a $3,000 training fee for each member it hires.

Libby Pier, 22, an eighth-grade English teacher at Los Angeles Academy Middle School, was angry and hurt when she received her layoff notice in the mail. The Boston native, who graduated from Northwestern University last year, said her year of teaching in South Los Angeles has been rewarding and challenging, and a learning experience.

"I've fallen in love with my school, with my kids, and the idea of being able to help even one student and make a difference in their lives and make them love learning," said Pier, who has interviewed at four inner-city charter schools and may pursue a doctorate in educational psychology if she can't find a classroom position. "I was definitely planning on remaining in teaching. . . . Now, I don't have a job."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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